My Zen teacher Kennett Roshi used to say that Zen and Pureland were two entrances to the same tunnel. The implication was that if you went in Zen you came out Pureland and vice versa. I studied under her and then later became Pureland. Now I'm interested in the point where they meet. If we make a quick comparison of the salient features of the two systems we get a chart something like this:
Self power Other power
Sudden awakening - satori Awakening of faith - shinjin
Buddha nature Bombu paradigm
Zen and Pureland are both expressions of Mahayana Buddhism, both value the bodhisattva ideal, both value the teacher-disciple relationship, both are “practice schools” as distinct from “philosophical schools”. In Chinese Buddhism, Zen and Pureland are often practised together, though it is generally more a matter of Pureland practice within a Zen ethos. My own style is rather the other way around.
Zen means contemplation. Pureland schools have often practised contemplation. Shan Tao was perhaps the most eminent Pureland master in history and he was known for his contemplative practice. Zen, therefore, is not alien to Pureland. Similarly, chanting is not alien to Zen. Many of the benefits that come from one come equally well from the other. Some people think of Zen practice as hard and Pureland as easy, but our recent Ten Day Chanting Intensive was certainly tough and Zen also has an ideal of effortlessness. These observations show us that some of the supposedly sharp differences tend to melt away when one looks closer.
Sometimes Zen and Pureland are, as it were, looking at opposite ends of the same elephant. The Zen notion of self expands one's self-identity until it is identical with the universe. The Pureland approach on the other hand is to reduce self-esteem until a deep insight into one's foolish nature is obtained. Are these really so different? In one case the ego bursts, in the other it hrivels. In both cases one is left with a direct encounter with existential reality, informed not by self-concern but by mindfulness of a higher purpose.
The human spiritual quest involves a quest within the gap between what is empirically encountered and what is encountered in intuition. We find ourselves and our world limited, vulnerable and transient. We intuit measurelessness, infinity and eternity. In the gap between observation and intuition occurs all human creativity, science and spiritual development. This is common ground to Zen and Pureland. Both bring us face to face with the existential mindful of the eternal. We experience gratitude, humility, awe and wonder. We have moments of ecstasy and we also have the experience of finding truth in the midst of the mundane – after the ecstasy, the laundry.
The idea of self-power is that one has within oneself a great potential that can be realised as enlightenment. The idea of other power is that one has no such potential and can only be saved by the intervention of a greater spiritual influence, that of the Buddhas. However, from the position of the practitioner, personal potential is unknown and the experience of striving to realise it from within the frame of one's unenlightened outlook leads to ultimate frustration. Zen is the path of thwarting. Pureland does not assume any such power and so expects that life will be a series of obstacles and fooleries. In accepting his bombu nature the Pureland practitioner may fall into the hands of Amida and be enlightened. Was that a personal potential realised or a gift of grace? Does it matter?
I personally find much that is valuable in both systems for the advancement of the spiritual life. The Zen notions of koan is particularly useful, and, as I see it, the ultimate koan is the nembutsu. The nembutsu is the act of refuge, of self-abandon. One recognises one's own foolish limitation and stands before the intuited wonder of the enlightened. One cries out “I can't” and one is turned around in the very moment of one's despair. All koans are about whether this old dog that I am ever had a Buddha nature – or any nature – and what this life can be. If we did not have the intuition we would just be old dogs forever. If we did not have the animal nature our awakening would have no purpose.
Practically speaking I have always used elements of both systems in my Buddhist teaching. I have found the frame provided by the three dogmas of Amidism – the trikaya nature of Buddha, the bombu nature of the adherent, and the nembutsu as favoured practice – extremely useful in providing a frame within which an open-minded, open-hearted approach to the practice can flourish. The role training, koan practice and contemplation of Zen then fit nicely into this frame and provide tangible means to confront our foolish nature and enter into a fuller mindfulness of and gratitude to the Buddhas.
Pureland says, “Have faith!” Zen says, “Whati s faith?” The practitioner says, “Where is my faith? What do I actually trust? What is my deepest intuition and value? Before what am I holding my life? What is the hook that I will not let myself off?” Day in, day out, we say the nembutsu. Day in, day out , we contemplate our own ignorance. The wise are those who know they are foolish. The foolish are those who think they are wise.
We are now in the modern world. The spiritual quest remains as it ever was, but the conditions change. In our hearts we harbour something that will never be content with a wasted life. Each generation must make this encounter afresh.
In the depths of winter
an animal is sheltering
unaware of how its heart
remembers the spring